Filming in Morocco inevitably means making a journey through time and space, Abdelkader Benali writes in this essay on the Moroccan films in the IDFA 2020 program. It’s a journey that leads across the city and the countryside, and past deeply buried memories and recurring histories.
Leila Shenna was on her way to becoming an international star. She played a femme fatale in the Bond film Moonraker. Then, in the early eighties, she disappeared without trace. At the end of the documentary Before the Dying of the Light, director Ali Essafi states that few Moroccans know anything about this woman who played such a significant role in Moroccan cinema of the sixties and seventies. She was part of a generation of makers for whom art was resistance, and for whom opposition to the regime became an artform in itself. This is revealed in the stories told by those involved at the time—stories of how the authorities had to be constantly thrown off the scent if creative progress was to be possible. Every time the censors, police or security services would slam on the brakes, they managed to pull a rabbit out of the hat. Essafi throws light on a generation of makers from the seventies who, in their anarchistic approach, saw art as a hammer and sickle with which to forge revolution among the masses. Once the interests of artists, union leaders and workers had been united, this would inevitably result in the collapse of the corrupt political system. In the meantime, constantly watched and persecuted, they continued to make highly experimental films mixing aesthetics with politics—with widely varying results. These films never found their way to a large audience; many were made, and then hidden away. Even today, access to the national film archive is as good as impossible, so we know as little about many of these films as we do about the fate of Leila Shenna.
What if the main protagonist is there, but is becoming a ghost? In this case, the camera becomes a poet, as poets seek the intangible. Karima Saidi’s A Way Home raises awkward questions about the maker’s freedom to film a loved one that doesn’t know what is being done with her story. In this case, Saida’s Brussels-based Moroccan mother, who is sinking ever further into dementia. At one moment, she confuses this daughter with another—Saidi also films this confusion. Her mother’s story is the poignant tale of a young woman from Tangiers who marries a Moroccan man who turns out to be no good for her. They have children, then the man leaves. This family story is told using photos and video clips made during the past fifty years. Saidi draws us in by firing her questions straight at her mother. Questions about her marriage, her brothers, about her relationship with her daughter. A world opens up, and a world is closed off. The filmmaker chooses a poetic approach which elevates her work above the classic Alzheimer documentary, becoming instead a highly personal ego document that refuses to choose between two thoughts: are we on earth to settle accounts with one another, or to be reconciled?
Little girls grow up and dream of a place they can grow into. Asmae El Moudir’s mother comes from the village Zawia in the High Atlas. The river is the only memory her mother has of the village. A postcard from the village that has for years been used as a bookmark takes the director of The Postcard there. She finds herself in a farming community where old traditions surrounding women are still strong. When she thwarts one of these traditions by wading into the river, she is called to account by the local leader, the caid. Soon afterwards, the girls of the village follow her example and take a refreshing dip. Farmer’s daughter Oum-Elaid’s desire to leave the village and study is also a break with tradition. If she doesn’t leave, she will have few prospects but to marry and remain a goatherd for the rest of her days.
Oum-Elaid’s desire for freedom is supported by her family, but the young women in Mothers, who’ve become pregnant outside of marriage, can count on no such support. Moroccan law sees them as prostitutes; their community will regard them as whores, bringing shame on their families. Mahjouba Edbouche gives a home to these young women in Agadir. Drawn from the surrounding villages as well as the city, the traditionally dressed girls are in absolute despair, caught between shame and prejudice. Mahjouba does two things: she provides the girls with a safe environment and asks that their parents be informed of the pregnancy. Only in this way can the social taboo be broken. The double standard applied by this society to men and women is a thorn in Mahjouba’s side. The way in which she is able to calm and comfort a tormented mother to whom she has just given the news that her is daughter pregnant is a blend of tact, experience and compassion. The misogyny in Moroccan society seems impossible to eliminate, but the loving gesture with which a farmer embraces his pregnant daughter offers hope. The safe house for these women suddenly becomes a democratic place, a space in which people have the chance to grow together.
Ziyara again demonstrates what these documentaries have in common: filming in Morocco inevitably means making a journey through time and space. However separate the countryside may be from the cities, in the psychology of the people they constantly overlap. Simone Bitton goes in search of the old Jewish communities of the Atlas Mountains. What has happened to the Jewish meeting places, the communities, and their histories? The people she meets speak warmly and with emotion about their former Jewish neighbours—as if they were still there. Like in Before the Dying of the Light, the disappearance of people is surrounded by a great deal of mystery. They left. They never returned. The memories seem to be buried deep, suppressed—though with persistent questioning they are revived, clear as glass. Or does it just seem that way? Perhaps they are really more of a wish? A wish that the future will be better than the past, and that differences will again be tolerated?
Abdelkader Benali is a Netherlands-based writer of novels, poetry, short stories, plays, and journalism stories. Benali is a member of the jury at IDFA 2020.
Some films in this Pathway are still screening this week. See the Pathway here.